When It’s Too Late to Talk

Last Thursday evening, a former employee at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis walked into the workplace where he’d been fired earlier in the day, shot five people to death, wounded two others and then killed himself.

In a metro area, even events in the same city can seem far away. They have to, if only to protect ourselves from the very random factors that can influence the means and times of our deaths.  As our minds work hard to separate and distance ourselves from the victims, to be “us” and they “them”, we are being human, but disingenuous.

On November 1st, 1991, I left my Russian language class in Room 203 at Jessup Hall on the University of Iowa campus. A few hours later, a physics student by the name of Gang Lu entered Room 203 and killed himself. He had just killed four members of the physics department, the associate vice president for academic affairs, and severely wounded a secretary, paralyzing her from the neck down.

For the next few days after the university shooting, I stayed away from campus. Eventually I stopped watching or reading the news. When I returned to classes, nothing was visibly different, except that my afternoon class had been moved. Our lives went on as if nothing had happened. It was easier to pretend that it hadn’t. It was easier to pretend that there weren’t walking time bombs among us still. It was easier to pretend that, by mere circumstance, we would not be the target of someone’s rage and paranoia.

We populate our discussions with the Second Amendment, mental health issues and the environment that nurtured a killer. People who interacted with them either questioned their own roles or reacted defensively to any inquiry. There is grand and overreaching discussion about the “system”. We look to something or someone to blame. It keeps us separate – from the “them” that killed and from the “them” that died.

In the recent Minneapolis shooting, the shooter’s family recognized there was something wrong several years prior. They tried to do the hard thing of dealing with the troubled man and he stopped dealing with them. There are simply no easy answers or solutions. It’s easier to convince ourselves that we won’t ever be in that situation. Then we forget and we stop talking about it.

Most of us know them – people who are slightly “off”. We categorize them as eccentric or harmless, either tolerating or avoiding them. They mutter angrily to themselves, react weirdly to small talk or stay silent, no matter how much you try to engage them. I worked in a retail environment and was responsible for the firing of an individual who threatened that he’d be waiting for me in the parking lot. Scary, but on some level, reasonable – an immediate reaction and corollary to his anger. But the simmering pots, always just on the verge of boiling over, catch us by surprise when they finally do.

It is human nature to seek reason in the irreconcilable. We do have a mental health crisis in this country, although most mental illnesses do not result in violence. We do have a system that only stops the next tragedy. Or maybe the next. This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2% of Americans, 18 or older, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. That’s about 1 in 4 adults.

I know mental illness and I know the destruction brought on by both undiagnosed and diagnosed disorders. My father, who suffered from depression most of his life, committed suicide when I was 18. My aunt, a diagnosed manic-depressive, self-medicated through alcohol, which eventually killed her. We need to help those families that have to live with the consequences. We need to provide more options to employers and families when someone starts to veer off into trouble. We are the safety net for each other. We need to talk about it NOW in this country and not wait for another tragedy to start up the conversation again. We need each other.

October 11th, 2012 is National Depression Screening Day. There is an anonymous online assessment available here.